Facing the Black Hole of Sexuality

in 36th Cinélatino – Rencontres de Toulouse

by Wolfgang Lasinger

Antonella Sudasassi Furniss Explores Women’s Experiences in Costa Rica

Costa Rican director Antonella Sudasassi Furniss addresses the sexuality of women over 65 in Memories of a Burning Body (Memorias de un cuerpo que arde), in several ways breaking the taboos that women are subject to in patriarchal circumstances. In particular, the film is about talking openly of sexuality and formulating sexual needs even at an advanced age, two aspects that Antonella Sudasassi Furniss focuses on in her film without becoming provocative or discourse-heavy. She finds vivid narrative and filmic means to address the problem, bringing the documentary-researched life experiences of several women from Costa Rica into a haunting fictional form.

At the beginning there is an impressive sequence shot. The camera guides us through a film set in a spacious apartment; an actress goes into make-up and is then led through several rooms and corridors by hectic members of the film crew to the front door. There the clapperboard appears and the call “action” can be heard. The actress, Sol Carballo, now in her role as an old woman, locks the door from the inside. A voice sounds from offscreen, which we instinctively attribute to the old woman. In a confessional tone, a monologue of memories begins, a stream of consciousness that recapitulates her married life. Other voices can also be heard, with further reports from women about how they were raised, how they discovered their sexuality and at the same time hid it, and ultimately had to subordinate it to male demands. Sol Carballo plays the old woman; the voices come from several others, testimonies collected by the director. They complement each other, enrich each other, and come together to form a model woman’s life in Costa Rica under the conditions of patriarchy. All of them are women at the end of their sixth decade of life, taking stock.

Sudasassi Furness is after an intergenerational dialogue. The opening credits state that this film is about the conversations that the director didn’t have with her grandmothers. The research for Memories of a Burning Body goes back to a documentary film project that Antonella Sudasassi Furniss originally planned. However, the women interviewed all wanted to remain anonymous and not appear in front of the camera. The director therefore transposed her documentary research into a quasi-fictional form. The central reports from three women became an exemplary biography that is under the spell of the “black hole of sex,” as it is once described. Nothing was allowed to be said, but everything revolved around that. It’s about fear and guilt that the mothers passed on through their upbringing.


Only now do the women dare to openly formulate their own needs and desires. The protagonist only experiences “complete freedom” as a widow, as she expressly says. This also includes a fulfilled sexuality, which she now enjoys with her lover. We also see the preparations before she receives him at home, how she showers and makes herself beautiful: these scenes radiate a genuine physical sensuality. In this way, the painful and traumatic experiences with repressed sex from youth and married life are left behind, the lack of orgasm with the husband, the reduction to the role of mother when the children come. In one storyline it is also brutal domestic violence that one woman suffers. This episode also leads to liberation with a divorce.


Emblematically, at the end of the film there are a series of tableaux that celebrate an opening. They respond to the opening scene of locking up. That defined the domestic sphere as a space of female captivity as dictated by patriarchy. In a subtle way, the film’s careful staging sets up this opening at the end. The domestic space is filled with the scenes evoked by the voices, the home becomes a theatrical stage in which the past makes its appearances between naturalistic illusion and artificial re-enactment. This often results in a slightly surreal effect: when the grandmother’s chickens are mentioned, they suddenly appear on the sofa in the living room; when childhood experiences are recounted, we see a little girl storming past an old woman through the apartment. The domestic space becomes the setting of not just one life, but many lives, representative of an entire generation. Haunting moments of agreement and consonance occur when the off-voice of memory overlaps with the on-voice of Sol Carballo. The representation then becomes immediately noticeable in the physical presence of the actress.

In virtuoso sequence shots and 360-degree pans, levels of time repeatedly merge into one another. The natural narrative flow and Sol Carballo’s confident performance make it all seem completely effortless. Comical effects also arise from the overlapping of the present and the past: the depressing experience from before seems to have been overcome, but remains unforgotten. And it can have a warning effect that extends beyond the film.

Memories of a Burning Body is the second feature film by Antonella Sudasassi Furniss, following The Awakening of the Ants (El despertar de las hormigas) from 2019. And it’s not just the relevance of its content that impresses. Above all, the formal mastery of the mise-en-scène and the editing are convincing. The film’s feminist commitment goes far beyond its programmatic message and is expressed in artistic design. This makes the film particularly stand out among the very successful first and second films in the feature film competition at the 36th Rencontres Cinélatino in Toulouse 2024.

Wolfgang Lasinger
Edited by Robert Horton